From the 45th Pennsylvania Regiment.
CAMP IN THE FIELD,
(Near Petersburg, Va.,) June 20, 1864.
Friend Cobb:—The plans of our Generals and the consequent movements of our armies, not only puzzle and keep in painful suspense the public mind, but often bewilder and astonish the army itself. The private soldier, and even all but the commanding Generals, know but little of the movements of the army of which we form a part, more than what passes under our own observation. A good soldier should obey orders, as they are issued, and not enquire into the expediency or propriety of what he is told to do.
On the evening of the 12th inst. [June 12, 1864], while quietly resting in our pits, in front of the enemy, near Cold Harbor, we received the order, which every old soldier has learned to dread, to “pack up.” Not until the head of our column was directed from the enemy, did we believe that we were not about to make a night attack.—Silently and quickly the main body of our corps withdrew from before the enemy’s works—a heavy skirmish line covering our movements. A rapid all night’s march of about 15 miles, brought us in sight of the Chickahominy river [on June 13, 1864]. After halting a few hours, to cook coffee and get a few moments of rest, we resumed our march, shaping our course southward, and nearly parallel with that of the river. At one a.m., on the 14th [of June 1864], we bivouacked near Jones’ bridge. During the forenoon of the same day we crossed the Chickahominy.
During the afternoon we crossed the peninsula, and at 10 p.m., encamped within two miles of James river.1
On the 15th [of June, 1864], we were allowed to rest until 9 p.m., when, having drawn rations, the 9th corps marched to the river, and crossed on pontoons, between the hours of 11 and 12 p.m.—A forced march of about 25 miles brought us before the enemy’s works around Petersburg, at 4 p.m., on the 16th [of June, 1864]. We found the 18th [XVIII/AotJ] and 2d corps [II/AotP] already in position.2
Shortly before dark [on June 16] our forces attacked and turned the enemy’s right.3 Firing was kept up all night [of June 16-17, 1864], during which our corps was constantly marching and countermarching to get in position for the [June 17] morning assault.
At daybreak on the morning of the 17th, the 9th corps [IX/AotP] charged on and carried the Rebs first line of entrenchments—a strong position, defended by artillery. Several hundred prisoners were captured, besides five pieces of artillery, which the Rebels abandoned without having time to spike them. Our brigade [1/2/IX/AotP] participated in the charge, and was hotly engaged. Our loss was very slight, considering what was accomplished. The casualties in our regiment were few—none in Co. G.4 Skirmishing was kept up all day; the Rebels, under Beauregard, presenting a bold front, though driven from their works.
On the morning of the 18th [of June, 1864], the 5th corps [V/AotP] having come up, a general advance was made all along the line. The Rebels had retired during the night, but our skirmishers soon found them about half a mile ahead. During the afternoon we made several charges, driving them about a mile, within their second line of works around the city. As we advanced on a double quick, a perfect shower of bullets was poured into our ranks from the enemy’s pits. Colonel [John I.] Curtin [of the 45th Pennsylvania], while leading our brigade through the hottest of the fire, was struck in the shoulder by a Minnie ball, inflicting a serious but not dangerous wound. Corporal Charles H. Millday, of Co. G, was badly wounded; a Minnie ball, entering his right arm, passed clean thru’ his side and knapsack. The casualties in the 45th [Pennsylvania] were 3 killed and 18 wounded. We are losing men every day from the fire of the enemy’s sharpshooters. Our regiment has now but 260 men fit for duty.5
The steeples of Petersburg are plainly seen in front of us, while the shrill note of the whistle, as the cars run to and from the town, remind us that we have something to do, ere the enemy’s communications are severed. The enemy, here, has not the advantage over us which the impenetrable forests and mountain fastnesses of the “Wilderness,” Spottsylvania, and other chosen rebel positions in northern Virginia, afforded him. The ground being favorable for the use of artillery, our superiority in that important branch of warfare is being surely felt by the Rebels. The city is at the mercy of our guns, and can be shelled to pieces whenever our artillery opens on it.
The Appomattox [River] is in the enemy’s possession. Our army is fast concentrating here and closing in around the city; and as Lee’s forces are also gathering for its defence, a desperate struggle will doubtless take place for its possession, ere many days. The Rebels still fight stubbornly, but are evidently getting disheartened, and give themselves up as prisoners at every opportunity.
In this they have the advantage over us;—when they get in a tight place, they can throw down their arms and surrender themselves, with the assurance that decent treatment awaits them. With us it is different. The dread of being cast into some Southern dungeon, there to starve and perish by degrees, in filth and torture, is enough to make one fight to the last for his life, rather than capitulate to Southern chivalry.
Since joining the army of the Potomac, I have learned a few facts which, though often mentioned, will probably bear repetition by an eye witness. The boasted Rebel army, though composed of the flower of the Southern soldiers, is no better to stand fire than that composed of our Northern boys. The men, though brave and determined, are as much afraid of bullets as we are. It is the impetuosity of their leaders, and not the superiority of the men, that has given them success. Their dashing charges and demoniacal yells have lost their terror, and are no longer irresistible. During the present campaign, they have almost universally been repulsed and driven back with slaughter, in their assaults on our works, while, when we have attacked them, with any thing like an equal chance, we have been successful. It is their bullets, and not their yells, which after all are nothing but “mouthsfull of spoken wind,” that we fear.
Much has been said and written about the ignorance of the Southern soldier, which as a general thing, is true; but I have seen enough to convince any one that there are many intelligent minds in the rebel ranks. There seem to be two extremes; those who are educated at all, are good scholars, while those whose education has been neglected, are very illiterate, the large majority of them not being able to sign their names, or even read print. General Lee’s army is composed almost exclusively of vigorous, active and well fed men. On enquiring of a Rebel captured at Spottsylvania, how much pay they got per month, he answered that they got eleven dollars, and that it took ten dollars to get a plug of tobacco, leaving them one dollar to “spree it on,” which would not get them a drink of whiskey. Many of them do not call for their pay at all.
During our march from Cold Harbor, we passed through the most beautiful and fertile part of Virginia I have yet seen. Large fields of waving gran, (wheat and oats,) nearly ready for the sickle; immense plantations, made beautiful by the luxuriant crops of green corn with which they are covered ; thick, shady groves, of beautiful pine, oak and cedar; orchards, laden with all kinds of fruit,–remind us, that unless we overrun the South with our armies, the rebellion can still live on the production of its own soil; and that Virginia, in parts where our army has not extensively penetrated, is neither desolated nor entirely robbed of its former splendor.
As our columns advance, the growing crops are mercilessly trodden down, and much other valuable property destroyed, or put to use by the soldiers, despite the guards which some of our Generals insist on placing over secesh property. Early fruit, such as cherries, mulberries, &C., are fully ripe. Apples, peaches and pears are plentiful, and growing finely. Grass is a good crop, and makes excellent feed for our beef cattle.
As the season advances the weather grows warmer, making marching and manoeuvering, or fighting in the open fields, when the sun is up, very exhausting and laborious to the troops. The roads are generally good, but very dusty. We have hitherto been confined to rations of hard bread and beef only, which, during forced marches and night work generally, is not sufficient to satisfy the demands of exhausted nature. There are plenty of rations in Washington, and except in extreme cases, nothing but willul neglect on the part of our Commissaries, prevents us from getting what is due us. Today we got half a gill of whiskey to a man, which I understand is to form a part of our daily ration.
Sergeant [James E.] Catlin, of Co. I, has been promoted to the 2d Lieutenancy of that company [on June 21, 1864], vice [DeWitt C.] Hoig, deceased [at Cold Harbor on June 6, 1864]6. Our division [2/IX/AotP] is now resting in reserve. We shall probably be called out tonight [June 20, 1864] to relive troops at the front.
But it is night, and I must close.
Letters from VETERAN in the Tioga County Agitator:
- NP: June 29, 1864 The Tioga County Agitator (Wellsboro, PA): The 45th PA Moves on Petersburg, June 12-20, 1864
- NP: July 27, 1864 The Tioga County Agitator (Wellsboro, PA): The 45th PA at Petersburg, Early July 1864
SOPO Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Dan Eyde.
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- SOPO Editor’s Note: Letter writer “VETERAN” is describing the 45th Pennsylvania’s movement from the battlefield of Cold Harbor to the Chickahominy River and then the James River. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The 45th Pennsylvania crossed the James River on incredibly long pontoon bridges put together by the US Engineer Battalion, and the 1st, 15th, and 50th New York Engineer regiments. It was an amazing feat of engineering, and it allowed Grant to get a jump on Lee. Union forces would arrive east of Petersburg in force, with only very few Confederate forces of P. G. T. Beuaregard’s Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia to oppose them during the Second Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864. Note that the Ninth Corps, of which the 45th Pennsylvania was a part, only arrived on the battlefield on the afternoon of June 16, 1864. They would not join in any attacks until the next day, June 17. ↩
- The assaults on June 16, 1864 were mainly carried out by Hancock’s Second Corps, Army of the Potomac. The Ninth Corps’ turn would occur, the next day, June 17. ↩
- This dawn assault, occurring at or slightly after 4 am on the morning of June 17, 1864, was delivered by Potter’s Second Division, Ninth Corps, of which the 45th Pennsylvania was a part. The 45th formed the right portion of the front line of Curtin’s First Brigade, which assaulted Battery 15, held by two guns of Pegram’s Petersburg Branch VA Artillery. Fulton’s Brigade of Tennesseans, division commander Bushrod Johnson’s old command, was just to the north, supported by Slaten’s Macon GA Artillery. See A. Wilson Greene’s book A Campaign of Giants: The Battle for Petersburg, Volume 1, page 150 for a map of this attack. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Beauregard had moved the Confederate line back west several hundred yards on the night of June 17-18, 1864. The day of June 18 was spent by the Union Army of the Potomac probing this new line with little vigor. Petersburg had held. ↩
- See the roster of Co. I, 45th Pennsylvania for the additional information about these two men. ↩
- The identity of “VETERAN,” who as you can see is a very skilled writer, has thus far eluded me. If you can tell me who this man was, please CONTACT US. ↩
- “From the 45th Pennsylvania Regiment.” Tioga County Agitator (Wellsboro, PA), June 29, 1864, p. 2, col. 4-5 ↩